Jack Simons and Bill McGuinn Defeat “Reptile” Tactics in Automobile Liability Case

Hoagland Longo Partners Jack Simons and Bill McGuinn obtained a favorable jury verdict for their clients and their clients’ insurer at trial in Middlesex County Superior Court on May 22, 2019.  The underlying lawsuit was filed against a Defendant auto repair shop and its mechanic, who rear ended Plaintiff’s vehicle while test driving a customer’s vehicle.  As a result of the accident, Plaintiff claimed to have sustained a variety of permanent injuries, undergoing surgical repair of the left shoulder, left elbow and right hip.  Plaintiff also claimed that she developed anxiety and depression as a result of the accident.  At trial, Plaintiff presented the testimony of three medical experts, an expert in the field of accounting in support of her lost wage claim, the owner of a local auto repair shop in support of her claims of negligence against the Defendant auto repair shop and eleven fact witnesses all describing the detrimental impact the motor vehicle accident had on Plaintiff’s life.  Plaintiff, her husband and their two children also testified in support of Plaintiff’s claims. 

Focusing on the potential sympathetic nature of this case, Plaintiff’s attorney tried his case with a focus on the “Reptile Theory.”  The “Reptile Theory” aims to influence jury decision-making by appealing to the reptilian complex of jurors’ brains.  That is, plaintiff’s counsel uses tactics to activate jurors’ survival instincts in hopes that they will make decisions based on instinct (i.e., fear) rather than logic and reasoning.  The central theme of the strategy is to focus on danger and community safety.  Attorneys using these tactics often remind jurors of their ability to send a message by awarding compensatory damages to punish defendants and deter others.  Many even suggest that without a “proper” verdict and an “appropriate” punishment, the danger to the community will actually be increased.

Plaintiff’s attorney in Jack and Bill’s case argued to the jury that the Defendant auto repair shop “did not care about the community” and was “needlessly endangering the public” at the time of the accident.  He stressed the need to return a verdict that would send a message.  Jack and Bill countered this technique by admitting that the Defendant mechanic was responsible for causing the accident and as a result, that the Defendant auto repair shop was vicariously liable.  However, Jack and Bill presented evidence that the shop owner, who was present for the duration of trial, was a small business owner that does in fact care about the community and took reasonable steps when he hired the mechanic involved in the accident.  The “Reptile Theory” backfired when Plaintiff’s “expert” in the field of auto repair shops was unable to substantiate his opinions with regard to Plaintiff’s claims of negligent hiring, retention, supervision and training.  As a result, the Court instructed the jury to disregard this expert’s testimony and dismissed these claims of negligence against the auto repair shop.

Jack and Bill argued to the jury that they should ignore the pleas of Plaintiff’s counsel to punish the at-fault parties and instead focus on the causation and permanency of Plaintiff’s injuries, which included a course of attorney-referred medical treatment, hip surgery that took place four years after the accident and a lost wage claim that lacked credibility. 

In his closing argument, Jack highlighting the testimony of one of Plaintiff’s doctors who testified Plaintiff would be able to resume an active, pain-free lifestyle.  Jack also pointed out that Plaintiff and her husband, who derived salaries from a family run business, had actually increased their income since the accident.  Instead of equally distributing the income between husband and wife, the couple was disproportionally attributing the income to the husband despite Plaintiff’s continued employment.  Jack argued this had nothing to with the accident but was instead a ploy to increase the value of the lawsuit.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Jack and Bill’s clients, finding that Plaintiff did not prove that she sustained a permanent injury as a result of the motor-vehicle accident.  The jury also returned a unanimous verdict finding that the Plaintiff did not sustain a lost-wage claim as a result of the accident.

This win is a noteworthy example of addressing “Reptile Theory” at trial.